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Episode 10: Live in the Swing State

people speaking into microphones
Erin Bagatta
Guests include Maayan Silver, Philip Rocco, Angela Lang and Emilio De Torre.

For the final episode of this season of "Swing State of the Union," we’re live! We discuss the RNC, Wisconsin’s political trends and life in the swing state of the union.

This is Swing State of the Union, a podcast all about why Wisconsin is so important to U.S. politics.

Today's episode is all about the 2024 election, the RNC and how this election will affect Wisconsin and the nation.

And this time, we're not recording in a radio booth. We are live at Nō Studios right here in Milwaukee.

Sam Woods: We'll start with the Republican National Convention, which comes to Milwaukee on July 15. As WUWM has been preparing to cover the convention, we've asked listeners what they're most excited for and their biggest concerns. Many have asked how the RNC will affect how they get to work and where they'll be allowed in town. Perhaps no organizations will be as impacted as those in the perimeter of the convention like Turner Hall, which sits directly across from the Fiserv Forum, where the event will be held.

Joy Powers: Emilio De Torre is the executive director of the Milwaukee Turners and a member of WUWM's Advisory Board. He is joining us now to talk about how they've prepared for the convention. Emilio, thank you so much for being here.

Emilio De Torre: Thanks for inviting me.

Powers: So Turner Hall is right in the thick of it, in one of the most high traffic areas. How have you had to prepare for this?

De Torre: That’s a great question and we're still in process. A lot of the information that businesses in the area would need to know is still forthcoming. Where do the zones begin and end? What happens with traffic patterns? We've taken a lot of different precautions and upgrades to the building to make sure that this national monument is still protected and standing after everything is done. We're very excited to have the building being used the entire time during that opportunity. We have taken precautions to make sure that there is special film being placed on our windows to make sure that they're shatterproof. We've checked the HVACs, the elevators and we've made sure that our security systems are intact. But we're used to running big events, as are the Pabst Theater Group that is operating the hall.

Woods: So, given all your preparation and those precautions that you were talking about, do you have any concerns in mind? Specific concerns in mind when it comes to the RNC?

De Torre: Yeah. I have a lot. I think coming hot on the heels of an individual who's coming to the city who said that Milwaukee is a “horrible place.” And they're pointedly wrong in that. Milwaukee is a beautiful place, as is evidenced by all of you. My concerns are not that the property downtown won't be protected – I'm sure it will be. My concerns more echo what's going to happen to the civil liberties of the individuals that want to come downtown and voice their opinions. And more importantly, my concerns echo what we saw occur on January 6th, when Christian nationalists and white supremacists descended on our Capitol. If individuals are coming to Milwaukee from out of state and they're bringing weapons, and they're not allowed to bring those weapons in the hard zone, where are they going to go with them? Are they going to leave them uncased in cars, which the mayor has already indicated is a large leader for weapons that are used in crimes? Or are they going to spill out into the near north side, the near south side and Wauwatosa? And are the residents in these surrounding areas, and especially predominantly Black and brown residents, going to be victims of violence at the hands of white supremacists in our city? And I would hope not.

Powers: Yeah. I think a lot of us have a lot of concerns with the RNC coming to town. One of them, as you mentioned, is, I guess, protest related. Now, you have previously worked as a legal observer during protests. Can you describe the purpose of that kind of role?

De Torre: Sure. For the RNC, the Milwaukee Turners and the National Lawyers Guild are working together to train and coordinate legal observers who are nonpartisan observers who monitor the interactions between the government and law enforcement and civilians to make sure that the constitutionally protected rights of civilians are exactly that – are protected. And then they document instances, perhaps, where they are not. So, we've already provided several of these trainings. There is a coordinator who's going to be on site. There are many attorneys and volunteers who have been trained, and we have plans to train others. To be clear, this is being coordinated by the National Lawyers Guild. I'm just using the fact that I started legal observer programs here in this state and many other states across the country to share that.

Woods: Are you able to speak to what that training is, or what you're trained to do as a legal observer?

De Torre: I can tell you in 90 minutes or less – no.

Woods: Alright, we have less.

De Torre: Alright. Quickly, yes. You're going to be a nonpartisan observer who is standing there, either writing or video recording interactions between law enforcement and civilians. You're noting placement. You're noting if there are unusual weapons. So, if everybody here remembers the Act 10 demonstrations, there were lots of law enforcement who came from outside of Madison and they were very excited to use all of these weird weapons and shields that they were able to purchase through military contracts. So they're not necessarily transparent. The folks in their towns don't know that they have them, but you will know that they're unusual when you see them. And so we're documenting that, because we're going to see all those toys come here, along with the FBI and Secret Service and other folks. It is important that we exercise and flex our democratic rights because democracy only works if we use it. And if we're not there, showing that we care – if we don't supervise our children when we go away or when they're doing whatever it is they're doing and playing in the backyard – then we shouldn't wonder if our children get up to the wrong thing. The same is true of every democratic institution we have in this nation, but specifically for us in our city. If folks are coming here for such an important thing like the RNC or the DNC in Chicago, people – us – need to observe what's happening, because it's being done with our dollars in our name.

Powers: Thank you so much. This is Emilio De Torre. He is the executive director at Milwaukee Turners, and he is a member of WUWM's Advisory Board.

Woods: After a short break, we'll learn about voter engagement and how messages from the presidential candidates are landing with Wisconsinites.

Powers: As you may have heard, we have an election coming up. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are headed for a rematch this fall, with the race likely coming down to just a handful of swing states – including Wisconsin. In the last two elections, Wisconsin was decided by less than 1% of votes. Biden and Trump have been making their case to voters for months now, but we want to get an idea of how their messages are landing.

Woods: Angela Lang is the founder and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, or BLOC, and Maayan Silver is a reporter with WUWM who has been covering the run up to this year's elections. Angela, we'll start with you. And we'll ask about candidate messaging in a moment, but first, I wanted to pick up really quickly where we left off with the RNC in Milwaukee. You made the decision to work from out of town during the RNC. Can you explain a little bit about that reasoning?

Angela Lang: Yeah. Once it was announced that we were even a finalist, we started to have conversations as a staff about what this meant for us. Our office is on 26th and Hopkins, it's easily Googleable and it's in a Black church. And folks that know historical context of violence in Black churches, it just didn't feel like we were safe. We already made the decision that our ambassadors would not be in the field that week knocking on doors ,because you just don't know what to expect. And with so many high profile staff – I am on TV holding the police union accountable, going after law enforcement very publicly, very unapologetically – it just didn't feel safe for staff. So we decided we're going to get out of town. And if we're going to get out of town, let's make it kind of a half-wellness retreat because this is emotionally charged. But also at the same time, there's opportunities for us to do counter programming. We may go on Instagram Live or Facebook Live after Trump accepts the nomination. If there's, you know, harmful narrative – which I'm sure will come out – or racist narratives, we are able to respond in a virtual sense. I've told press that have been reaching out that we are only available virtually. And these are part of the reasons we just don't feel safe as a Black organization in this political landscape, unfortunately.

Powers: Now, as you mentioned, BLOC knocks doors for elections from president to school board. Basically every election that comes up, you guys are out at doors. What are the challenges for a presidential election compared to down ballot races?

Lang: I think the presidential election is a lot more distant to folks. I know sometimes there's kind of this idea that presidential elections are more popular, and yes, that's true if you look at turnout, but you start to see folks that are saying, “Oh, my aldermanic race or the special election in the Senate race actually directly impacts me a little bit more.” And so, when it feels like, on the federal level, that Congress, federal government, all of it is dysfunctional and not working for you, it doesn't really instill a lot of faith of why you should continue to show up, unfortunately. So, it's good that folks are paying attention to down ballot races, but I think the political landscape that we're in and folks not being super excited for this rematch, it makes the conversations on a federal level a little bit different.

Woods: And Maayan, turning to you, you've also been talking with voters – a lot of voters – as part of your work with WUWM's election coverage. Can you talk a little bit about the biggest issues facing each campaign when it comes to, you know, messaging and reaching voters.

Maayan Silver: Sure. So, when it comes to the Democrats and the Biden campaign, I would say that one of the big issues is erosion of support among young voters, whether that's people under 29 or whether that's people under 45. Those were both groups that Biden carried by double digits in 2020, and polls are showing that he's really behind with those groups now. And one of the things that goes along with that is the fact that Biden is the incumbent right now. In 2020, Trump was the incumbent, and we were going through the pandemic. We were going through racial justice protests that were all around the country. These things were visceral and real to people. And when there was unease or there was problems, people would look at Trump. And so, you know, I talked to one young voter who said, “It just doesn't really seem as dire to vote against Trump in 2024 as it did in 2020.” And so, that's something. You know, people are looking at inflation or at what's happening in the Middle East or, you know, inequities in communities. And so that's, I think, something that the Democrats are really going to have to focus on and think about. When it comes to the Republicans, I think Trump – what I'm hearing from a lot of voters is that Trump himself is a liability. Now, he mobilizes the base, but there are moderates and there are suburban women and there are people that are just not going to bring themselves to vote for Trump. In fact, I've talked to Trump voters at rallies. A lot of them cited his bravado as something they don't like about him, or the way he talks, and these are solid Trump supporters. The thing is, additionally, for Republicans, they really have an uphill battle when it comes to infrastructure and fundraising. So the Biden campaign has 44 field offices around the state. They have dozens of workers and, as a reporter, I'm still trying to get a single contact for the Trump campaign in Wisconsin. And they've claimed that it's, you know, they have the RNC here and they're mobilizing around that – but really, on the ground. Now, again in 2016, Trump didn't have an infrastructure here, and he's still won, and he's increasing his fundraising after the criminal convictions in the hush money payment. But Wisconsin Democrats are very well organized, and they're out raising with money the Republicans. And as JR Ross of WisPolitics.com says money equals messaging.

Powers: As you've said, you've spoken with a lot of voters. We've mentioned that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are headed for a rematch, and I want to play a clip from Tynnetta Jackson. She is considering voting third party. In fact, here she is:

Tynetta Jackson: I’m still a registered Democrat, but I tell you I'm voting my values. From here, going forward, I'm voting my values and who represent my values the most. So I'm gonna be quite honest, if it is a Republican that represent my values the most, I will vote for that. Trump is not the one that represent my values, but if there is someone I'm going to definitely vote my values.

Powers: How common is this sentiment?

Silver: So I'm hearing from a lot of voters, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, that they are considering themselves more independents and thinking about candidates as opposed to being loyal to a certain political party. The thing with Tynnetta is that, you know, there are things, along with young voters, that voters don't like about Biden - whether it's his age, whether it's inflation, whether it's, you know, the Middle East, inequities in communities, all those kinds of things. Trump, as she mentioned, is not her answer. And so it's important to note that I talked to Tynnetta before the primary in April and that's when she was considering voting for Cornell West or voting for uninstructed vote, which was the protest vote against what was happening in Gaza. And she ended up, I've spoken to her since then, she ended up voting for Biden, but it's going to be interesting. What kind of voters are going to plug their nose and vote for Biden if they're not really that into Biden versus whether they're simply going to, you know, vote their values, whatever that means come November.

Woods: So, Angela, you know, three, four months out from a campaign, is it typical for people to have this kind of lack of enthusiasm or this kind of like, what's the point towards a candidate or an election?

Lang: That's a good question. I honestly think so, and I've been trying to tell folks that like, you know national reporters that are all focused on Milwaukee and Wisconsin, is that we have four elections this year and so we have to be very careful to not confuse folks. Obviously you know people know about the presidential election, but they're like, “Is that August, is that November? We've got these other elections, why is it not all just one ballot?” And so from a BLOC perspective, we try to take one election at a time just to not confuse people and people will bring up, you know, the presidential election because naturally it's on people's minds. And so I tell people that if we are having the same enthusiasm gap type of conversations around Labor Day, then I think there is a problem. But I think some folks want to take one election at a time.

Powers: All right, well, that was my Maayan Silver. She is a reporter for WUWM. Angela Lang, executive director at BLOC. Thank you both so much. Listeners of the podcast will be very familiar with this guest. Phil Rocco is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. And he has been a critical contributor to Swing State of the Union - both on and off the air, helping us with political analysis, contextualizing what's happened historically in the state with what's happening today. Phil, thank you so much for being here.

Phil Rocco: Hey, always good to be back.

Powers: What are some of the commonalities that you see between the 2024 election and previous presidential elections?

Rocco: Yeah, I mean, I would say that in Wisconsin speaking about our swing state, the commonality is we're still going to be a swing state in all of the latest forecast models that you can look at. Wisconsin is, the margin is projected to be the closest, the most razor's edge around the country. That's not so different in of the last six presidential elections. Four of them in Wisconsin have been decided ... the margin of victory was 5%. The only two that weren't were the two Obama elections. So, I mean, I think that's going to be a big consistent theme, which is that this election is not going to be a blowout in either direction. And it's certainly not going to be in Wisconsin. And the thing that draws a parallel between this election and the last one is in a context where there is fear mongering about election fraud and things like that. I think it means that the election will not be over on Election Day and there's going to be a real politicization, quite possibly of the result. And that's something that we should should be sort of expecting.

Powers: You know, it seems like every election now is considered the most consequential election in history. But is that how you're viewing the 2024 presidential election?

Rocco: Looking at this historically, elections are ... they're significant not only for like the outcome and for how close they're going to be and the sort of the stakes of the issues in the election, but they're significant because they're part of a larger performance of sort of democracy, right? They're one really good indicator, not just of who votes how many people vote, but basically, can you get a result that that people will stick to live with, not commit violence over?Right. The fact that what we saw in 2020 was that that was not true. OK, I think that, that sort of definitionally means that 2024 is the most important election, not because of, again, the sort of the results itself, the candidates themselves, but the broader context in which it's playing out, the backdrop.

Woods: So, does that mean that, you know, 2028 is also going to be the most consequential? Like does this end like? Is this just the new normal now? Like that we should either expect violence or just like be prepared for it after an election.

Rocco: My friend Adam Sheingate at Hopkins has a word that he uses. He calls it “democratic careening.” Right. That like that politics sort of stabilizes temporarily than careens back into moments of chaos. And I think that we're in a period of careening. And I think that that means that it's hard to say when that sense of consequence will end. Now that sense of consequence doesn't always necessarily translate into voters feeling mobilized to vote. Paradoxically, I think that tension can actually have a way of demobilizing people, too. But I do think it means that, practically speaking, these elections will have great consequences.

Woods: As you said, here and on the podcast as well, Wisconsin is often at the forefront of political trends. Historically, is there anything that you see today in Wisconsin that in a decade or two we might be saying that started in Wisconsin or that had Wisconsin roots.

Rocco: Yeah, I think when I talked about on the podcast, I was speaking of, like, big ideas on the left or the right that started in Wisconsin, like unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the proto-Social Security policies in the early 20th century, welfare reform, right to work union busting type things in the in the in the Walker years, in the Thompson years as well. I think the interesting thing about policy right now in Wisconsin is that we're sort of stuck in neutral. And so you're not seeing big ideas on the left or the right emerge out of Wisconsin anymore, you know, like, because you have kind of gerrymandered state Legislature, hard for Democrats to consolidate control of government. That's why Minnesota passes free school lunch and Wisconsin doesn't. At the same time, in fact, the Republicans really struggle in statewide elections now. It means that a lot of the ideas that are sort of present in those elections, tax cuts and so on, they're really ideas that are being borrowed from elsewhere. So, you know, gerrymandered state Legislature also might make it difficult to have an incentive to, like, come up with new ideas that are popular. And so I think policywise, we're stuck in neutral, what's significant and what we might be looking for in other places is changes that happen in the political sphere. So I would say that the big thing that we should be looking for that Wisconsin as the seeds of is sort of like I would call it, the politicization of everything. So you take judicial races. Now not every state elects their judges, but if you go back a couple decades, two, three decades, judicial races didn't have that kind of really intense partisan character. They're much more, I think, low key affairs - doesn't mean they weren't deeply political or the courts are deeply political. Last, Wisconsin judicial election was the highest spending judicial election in American history. The next one, which will happen next year, will probably be, you know, the new record for that. I think we can expect to see that kind of diffuse across the country. Sure, we can't all wait for that.

Powers: Phil Rocco is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you so much to everyone who was able to join us live at Nō Studios in Milwaukee. Over the course of producing this series, we asked several of our guests why they think Wisconsin is a swing state. We'll play a few of those answers and try to answer that question ourselves after a short break.

Woods: To close out this season of Swing State of the Union, we want to return to the question at the heart of this podcast: why is Wisconsin a swing state? We asked many of our guests their thoughts on this question. Here are a few of those answers:

“Independents in the state make up about 12% of registered voters, little less than that about 8 or 9% of likely voters are independent. And moderates in the state are over 30%. Many of those are, in fact, fairly partisan, but at least ideologically, they think of themselves as in the middle. Those provide some sizable groups to swing an election."

“I think about our history and I think about the fact that we are the state that produced Robert La Follette and Joe McCarthy and elected Scott Walker and Barack Obama in the same year and has sent Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson to the Senate in consecutive elections. I don't know why we are that way, but we have a long history of it. And I think there's been a lot more attention on us lately, but we've always had really closely decided elections with very few exceptions.”

“Honestly, I think it's perfect, random chance that it just shook out that way here. If you look at the sort of throw a dart at the map at a random town in Wisconsin, that town has changed the way it votes over the last 20 years, dramatically by like 20 points almost. It's just so happens that we've had equal and offsetting changes in communities around the state over that period.”

“For one reason or another, Wisconsin has been a place where people in government have tried to do new things, things that netted the attention of people across the country. Think about the creation of the University of Wisconsin system, Wisconsin idea, right? It was pioneering, it was innovative. Other people elsewhere in the country took notice, and the fact that Wisconsin is a place where it seems as if new things can be tried means that for even political actors outside the state of Wisconsin, Wisconsin is a place that matters.”

Powers: It seems only fair that we also try to answer this question – which is hard, and in some ways, impossible to fully answer. Wisconsin elections are often decided by just a few thousand people - and no one can say for sure why each individual votes the way they do. But the reasons why so many Wisconsinites find themselves on one side of the aisle or another, speak to the divides at the core of this state. Wisconsin has always relied on industry, balancing the needs of businesses with the needs of its workers. As Phil Rocco mentioned the Wisconsin idea – using our university system to better our government and our citizens - has made space for new ideas to be tried and debated. Even in the national psyche, Wisconsin holds some odd contradictions. It's everyone's hometown - as shown in TV shows like Happy Days or That 70's Show. It's also home to two of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history - Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein - who continue to inspire horror films decades after their crimes. It is wholesome, it is horrifying, it is quirky. It's Wisconsin.

Woods: When I first look at where Wisconsin is unique and that’s in our progressive and socialist history. It’s tied to our swingy-ness because civic participation and trying new things are baked into those ideologies. And those two traditions live on. The state has traditionally swung back and forth and tried new things that started right here in Wisconsin, as we discussed in Episode 1. Whatever it is – if it’s a big idea and there are enough people in Wisconsin that are attracted to it ,they will give it a try. And, on that note, we do have a presidential election this year, and a governor’s race in two years and state Supreme Court elections every year for the next six years. With that many statewide elections coming up, Wisconsin offers a perfect petri dish for testing new political strategies, perfecting them and exporting them to other states like we’ve done in the past. So yes, Wisconsin is a swing state this fall, but the battle for control over the state in future elections is just beginning.

Swing State of the Union is produced by WUWM 89.7 FM — Milwaukee's NPR, a part of the NPR Podcast Network. Swing State of the Union is hosted and produced by Joy Powers and Sam Woods and is edited by Becky Mortensen and Ann-Elise Henzl with support from WUWM staff Nadya Kelly, Michelle Maternowski, Valeria Navarro Villegas, Rob Larry, Maayan Silver, Emily Files, Erin Bagatta and Anna Stratton.

And thank you to all the WUWM staff for holding us up through producing this series.

Please subscribe to the Swing State of the Union podcast wherever you like to listen.

Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.